Rennie Gibbs, Pregnant at 15, Charged with Murdering her Stillborn Baby
A Mississippi woman is facing murder charges over the death of her stillborn child, and she is not alone.
The Guardian reports on the alarming trend towards criminalizing pregnant women, highlighting some of the many hundreds of cases across the nation in which women are being charged with shocking crimes under laws actually designed to protect them from abusive male partners.
One such woman, Rennie Gibbs, stands accused of murder and faces life in a Mississippi prison over the death of her stillborn child. Gibbs was 15 years old when she got pregnant. She lost her baby at 36 weeks. Prosecutors discovered she had a cocaine habit, and even though there was no evidence that her drug use had anything to do with her baby’s death they threw the book at her, charging her with a “depraved-heart murder.” If convicted, the crime carries a mandatory life sentence.
In neighboring Alabama, at least 40 women have been prosecuted under that state’s “chemical endangerment” law, which was enacted to protect children living in homes where methamphetamine was being cooked from dangerous fumes and explosions. But prosecutors have used the law against women who aren’t even meth-makers.
Amanda Kimbrough is one of them. The irony of it all is that Kimbrough is actually staunchly pro-life, and even when doctors advised her to consider an abortion because her fetus could possibly be born with Down’s syndrome, she insisted on giving birth. But her baby died minutes after being delivered by caesarean section, and six months later Kimbrough found herself under arrest for “chemical endangerment” due to allegations that she took drugs while pregnant. She vehemently denies this.
“That shocked me, it really did,” Kimbrough told the Guardian. “I had lost a child, that was enough.”
Women’s rights advocates say that laws like these are evidence of an increasing criminalization of pregnant women, a sort of back-door attempt by anti-abortion forces to roll back hard-won reproductive rights. “Women are being stripped of their constitutional personhood and subjected to truly cruel laws,” Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) told the Guardian.
In Mississippi, anti-abortion groups and some conservative politicians want to amend the state constitution to re-define the definition of a person to include a fetus from the moment of conception.
But fetal homicide laws, which exist in at least 38 states, were not intended to target would-be mothers, they were designed to protect those women and girls from abusive males. But women now find themselves victimized by the very laws that are meant to protect them. In South Carolina, for example, NAPW found only one instance in which fetal homicide law was applied against a man who assaulted a pregnant woman (and that case was thrown out), compared to as many as 300 women who have been arrested for something they were accused of doing during the course of their pregnancy.
The misuse of fetal homicide and chemical endangerment laws also demonstrates the ignorance of those who would make murderers out of women and girls who suffer from the disease of addiction. In an amicus brief filed in support of Rennie Gibbs, a group of psychologists argue that Gibbs’s cocaine use was not the result of a “depraved heart,” but rather “to satisfy an acute psychological and physical need” for cocaine.
And worse, perhaps, is the irony of increased abortions by woman looking to avoid criminal prosecution in the event their baby dies. “Prosecuting women and girls for continuing [a pregnancy] to term despite a drug addiction encourages them to terminate unwanted pregnancies to avoid criminal penalties,” the amicus brief asserts. “The state could not have intended this result when it adopted the homicide statute.”
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